Book Review: The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence

oldtestOne of the primary obstacles facing the Christian faith today is the apparent advocation and promotion of indiscriminate violence by the God of the Old Testament. A cursory reading of the Old Testament could lead one to believe that God is in fact, as atheist Richard Dawkins asserts, “the most unpleasant character in all fiction; jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.” As a result, many find it impossible to place their faith and trust in an unseen God who appears to have no rhyme or reason for His acts of violence against His own creation. The view of God as a lover and promoter of violence stands in opposition to His loving, merciful, and just nature that is chronicled throughout the Old Testament. Many are left struggling with questions such as, “If God is truly merciful and loving, why did He give the command to not leave alive anything that breathes?” “Why did He command entire cities be destroyed?” Because of the violence, many are unwilling to even consider the possibility that a loving God who cares for His creation and desires a personal relationship with them can exist.

In his new book, The Old Testament Case for Nonviolence, attorney Matthew Curtis Fleischer takes the position that the violence associated with God throughout the Old Testament was neither random or indiscriminate. From the very beginning, Fleischer acknowledges the problem that many have with the God of the Old Testament. He writes, “At first glance, the situation isn’t pretty. In fact, it’s downright ugly.” He offers a laundry list of instances where God commanded violent acts against people, animals, cities, and entire nations- acknowledging His appearance as that of a moral monster. Fleischer sets out to answer three primary questions relating to the reconciliation of the Old and New Testament positions of violence and nonviolence, who we should imitate today as believers, and God’s true nature. At the beginning of chapter two, Fleischer provides the key to resolving the apparent moral contradiction between the testaments. The remainder of the book unpacks his main idea. He wrote that:

 God revealed His ethical idea to humankind. He unveiled it within a developing story, not in standalone rules meted out of one verse, paragraph, or incident at a time. That’s why the Bible is a narrative, not an encyclopedia or constitution. Its ethical storyline goes like this: (1) God chose a specific group of people, (2) set them apart from the rest of the world, (3) gave them a list of rules that improved their ethics beyond anything the world had ever known, (4) gradually continue revealing ethical improvements to them, and (5) then completed His ethical revelation in Jesus. God didn’t just fly by earth one day and drop off a list of finalized rules. He first established a relationship with His chosen people and then progressively taught ethics to all of humanity through them.

Fleischer states the importance of interpreting God’s actions in the Old Testament not from the “modern post-Jesus” perspective, but within the historical and cultural contexts of humans who lived during the time of the Old Testament.  He introduces the reader to many codified laws of other Near East countries. Put into its proper historical context, Fleischer demonstrates how the often-violent commands and strict laws were in fact was an improvement over the laws of that day. Fleischer refers to this improvement as incremental ethical revelation. This revelation made improvements to areas such as slavery, criminal penalties, protection for the disadvantaged, women’s rights, and warfare policies. What appeared to be violence for no reason should be considered as mode of deterrence. There are many instances of what could be considered case law – directions that allowed for punishment in the worst-case scenario. It was not intended to be a license to commit such an act. He goes on further to state that God never intended for His Old Testament commands to be, “universally or eternally applicable. They weren’t directed at all humankind. They weren’t even directed at future believers.” Fleischer details the responsibility the nation of Israel had as God’s people and how those rules refined their worship of God and pointed toward the Savior. To answer his question on who believers should follow today, Fleischer wrote, “God gave Jesus the final word of Christian ethics. His life and teachings represent the culmination of incremental ethical revelation. He fulfilled the law by revealing God’s perfect, eternal, and universally applicable moral code.”

Fleischer has written a powerful and necessary book. It is a fine balance between being over-scholarly and shallow. With skill, he lays out the argument against God from those who would seek to define Him only as impartially violent. He then counters their argument with reasons why God acted in the way He did, demonstrating His loving care for His people in increments they could handle and understand. Fleischer cuts through the noise and offers a biblical defense for a loving, generous, and just God. This is an important apologetic work. For the one who would mistrust God and questions His love, Fleischer’s book challenges their doubt in a non-judgmental manner. I would highly recommend this book to anyone who desires to be sharper in their apologetic of God or knows someone who cannot move past the belief that God is a violent, blood-thirsty tyrant. You need this book on your shelf.

I received a complimentary copy of this book in return for my honest review.

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 7 and 8

7. The leadership of a Sending Church models and practices a “live sent” lifestyle. I am referring to pastoral leadership specifically. It has been said that “everything rises and falls with leadership.” This is never truer than when it is applied to the New Testament church. One of the interesting things that happens in the local church is that the congregation tends to take on the personality of their pastor. If the pastor is loving and caring, the congregation tends to be so as well. If the pastor is cold and dismissive, the congregation tends to be so as well. If the pastor embraces the fact that God has sent the believer into world to be salt and light and models that is his everyday contact with people, the congregations tends to do the same. One the other hand, if the pastor refuses to embrace this truth and does not “live sent”, all the sermons in the world will not make a difference. Sending Churches are led by pastors who know what it means to “live sent.

8. Sending Churches constantly evaluate ministries, programs, and staff to optimize their impact on the community. The tendency of any organization, churches included, is to continue the same path unless forced into a change of direction. Routines are quickly formed. It is important for churches to evaluate their work and ministry on a regular basis. This evaluation requires tough questions and honest answers. It is difficult because through the years people become attached to “their” programs, classes, and ministries. Leaders must be aware that making changes can create a firestorm when a person’s favorite anything is affected, altered, or discontinued. Churches who intentionally send people and resources into their community constantly evaluate their work. Questions such as “What is working?”, “Do we have proper funding?”, and “What do we need to stop doing?” are routinely asked. Sending Churches are willing to place the “sacred cows” on the altar for the sake of those who have not heard the gospel. Sending Churches constantly ask questions like this one: “In our current situation, what could we do different so that more people and resources are given to the pursuit of those who are not here yet?”

 

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 5 and 6

5. Sending Churches resist the “maintenance” model of ministry. According to Webster, the word maintain means, “to keep in an existing state.” I am not sure that a more fitting and accurate descriptor of the ministry approach of today’s church can be offered. Churches have become successful at keeping things they are or the way they were. Why is this? I believe it a simple matter of ease. It is easier to take no risk. It is easier to not try. It is easier to work within what is comfortable and familiar – even if it doesn’t work. It has been said that a ship is safe in harbor, but ships were not made for such things. The church wasn’t birthed to remain in harbor under the watch-care and supervision of those who belong to its ranks. The church was birthed to be on offense – moving forward with a clear objective and message. Sending Churches resist maintenance and choose action. They choose risk over ease.

6. Sending Churches view missions not as a singular activity to do but as a lifestyle to be embraced. Churches have become masters of compartmentalization with each ministry element (children, adults, students, music, etc.) working independently boasting their own leader, budget, and calendar. Missions and outreach are no different. Missions is often viewed, although improperly, as a single event, offering, or emphasis. It is something the church does rather than who it is. Sending Churches weave the pursuit of those outside of God’s family into the fabric of their overall ministry and work. The tangible acts of service and love that open the doors for gospel conversations (missions) are part of the church’s DNA and ministry expression. Instead of simply “doing” missions, Sending Churches intentionally live a missional lifestyle.

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 3 and 4

3. The passion and resolve to reach their community is reflected in the budget of a Sending Church. Budgets say a great deal about priorities. How a family, business, or non-profit spends its limited financial resources paints the picture of what they value. If a church is inward-focused and believes its role is to keep the membership comfortable and happy, their budget will reflect this with a higher percentage of comfort and fellowship ministries. As a result, less money is set aside for missions and community ministry. This is the tendency of Staying Churches. However, Sending Churches prioritize the work of missions and community ministry and their budgets reflect their commitment to an outward focus.  Careful study of their budgets shows the value of others, those not part of the body. Sending Churches believe that ministry should be funded. Why? Two reasons. First, funding gives you the freedom to serve. When the opportunity to serve/minister comes along, money does not become the deciding factor. Second, funding provides visual confirmation to the importance of community ministry. When ministry is funded, it becomes real to the body of Christ.

4. Sending Churches intentionally schedule ministries, events, and activities for reaching their community. The key word here is “intentional.” For far too long churches have expected growth and ministry to just happen. They sit back and wait for the community to walk in the front door. This is a poor outreach strategy. Ministry must be premeditated. To reach communities, churches must move from doing things “by accident” to doing them “on purpose.” Nothing good happens by accident. Hesitancy is planning brings about certain failure. Churches must be intentional in the areas of planning, evangelism, and follow-up. Sending Churches place opportunities for service on their calendars and encourage involvement on behalf of the body. The discipline of intentionally scheduling opportunities for service and involvement moves the peg from “on accident” to “on purpose.”

A Tale of Two Churches: Sending Churches Parts 1 and 2

After an unscheduled hiatus, I will continue the “A Tale of Two Churches” series. I began by offering the definition of staying and sending churches. Following the definition of the two church types, I offered 10 characteristics of staying churches. Allow me to recap the definitions.

Staying Churches are those who devote the great majority of their resources, time, and energy to keeping those who are already a part of the church happy and satisfied. They acknowledge their community, but the acknowledgment doesn’t necessarily translate to responsibility.

Sending Churches are those who are externally focused and intentional when it comes to sending people and resources into their community for the sole purpose of introducing people to Jesus Christ. The acknowledgment of their community translates to responsibility and action.

Let’s move on to the characteristics of Sending Churches.

1. Sending Churches understand that time in an enemy. God’s Word have much to say about time. We place time into three concrete categories: yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Yesterday in an enemy. We have no control over yesterday, it is gone forever. Yet, Satan would love to keep us here. He would love to keep the church in living in the past. He would enjoy keeping our focus on the “good ole days.” He knows that to do will render the church ineffective today. Tomorrow is an enemy. We enjoy living here as much as we do in the past. We make plans. We talk about where we are going and what we will be doing. We are reminded in James 4:14, “… you do not know what will happen tomorrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appears for a little time and then vanishes away. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and do this or that.”

It is impossible to have control over something that is not even promised to us. Satan would have the church play the “wait until tomorrow” game. On the other hand, we have control over today. We must take advantage of it and spend it in pursuit of what matters to God. The hurting, the broken, the hopeless, and the 3 out of 4 North American’s who are lost do not need the church to waste the time it has been given. With no way to change the past and no assurance there will be a tomorrow, today has to count. It was Dr. David Allen who said, “The clock of life is wound but once, and no man has the power to tell just when the hands will stop, at late or early hour. Now is the only time you own. Live, love, toil with a will. Place no faith in time. For the clock may soon be still.”

2. Sending Churches have resolved in their heart and minds the church exists for those who are not yet a part of it. Churches are communities of people who have been and are being changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ – that He died and rose again to save the lost. Churches are not places for perfect people, but for those who are broken and sinful. In fact, this is who Jesus came to call and continues to call to himself today. The Church cannot be a place for the saved and satisfied only. The Church has a purpose – to be a living example of the redemptive power of Jesus Christ in this world. Sending churches are willing to sacrifice comfort, traditions, personal preferences to reach those who have not been transformed by God’s grace.

The purpose of anything is in the mind of its creator. The Church was built and formed to be a missionary force empowered to bear the good news of the gospel. Through the centuries we have allowed it to become a sanctuary – an institution for meeting the needs of the saved. Sending Churches has not forgotten William Tyndale’s words, “The Church is the one institution that exists for those outside it.”

 

My Commitments for 2018

2018Today is the day – the first day of a brand-new year. It is a day many people anticipate. Some view today as the best day for watching college football (I am one of those). Some view today as simply a day off from work. Others view today as a chance for a new beginning. Those who view New Year’s Day as a new beginning will make resolutions to stop or start something. Resolutions offered today will include such things as weight loss, increased family time, saving money, to name a few. Personally, I don’t make resolutions. I do however believe in making commitments based on an honest evaluation of the past. With my family at the top of this list, I would like to share with you the commitments I am making this year.

  1. I plan to read smarter, so I may write better. If you are at least an occasional reader of my blog, you know I enjoy reading and writing. The two are joined at the hip in my eyes. My plan this year is to focus and confine my reading to the areas of ministry and leadership. In 2018, I will choose quality over quantity. For me, this smarter reading will sharpen my focus and lead to more beneficial writing here.
  2. I plan to say “no” more often to what pulls me away from my pastoral duties. I tend to say “yes” too often. As a result, I have found myself stretched thin and overloaded. I have been the pastor of First Baptist Church of Perry for five months. It is a huge work. I am enjoying getting to know and spend time with our people. I have a long way to go. My church deserves and needs my attention. I believe God is going to do a great work among His people this year. He is giving me a vision for our church going forward. I/we cannot afford to be distracted.
  3. I plan to be more focused in my preaching and teaching. Having looked back at my preaching and teaching this past year, I realize that at times it was scattered. My prayer is for the Lord to make me increasingly aware of the needs of my congregation, as well as the struggles and issues plaguing our city, state, and nation and speak to them biblically and strategically. This will involve dedicated time away from my pastoral duties for sermon planning/writing. I cannot say how thankful I am that First Baptist Perry makes this time available to me.
  4. I plan to spend more time with my ministerial staff this year. I am privileged to lead the largest ministerial staff in all my years in the gospel ministry. I anticipate the addition of another staff member this year. My desire is to encourage and strengthen them in their areas of ministry. My desire is to move away from “I’m here if you need me” and move toward “Let’s do life and ministry together.”
  5. I plan to begin my book this year. For years I have I have flirted with the idea of a writing a book. Over the past three years I have completed two large bodies of work. The first, a verse-by-verse exposition of the book of Ephesians. This exposition was a requirement for my Doctor of Ministry degree. The second, a three-hour training conference outlining the principles of community ministry and engagement. I envision either of these works serving as the framework for my first book.

Why share these commitments publicly? Accountability. I hope throughout 2018 those who read my blog will ask me, “How are you doing in these areas?” What commitments have you made?

 

A Tale of Two Churches: Staying Churches Parts 9 and 10

9. Staying Churches tend to look through the rear view mirror instead of the windshield. Imagine for a moment you get in your car to go somewhere. You get in, adjust your seat, secure your seat belt and take off. You must then choose which glass feature you are going to look through while you drive: windshield or rear view mirror. If your intent is to move forward where you have not been, it would impossible – even unsafe and unwise – to navigate by looking behind you. Staying churches tend to navigate in this manner. These churches spend an unhealthy amount of time dwelling on where they have been instead of focusing on where they are Please notice that I said, “an unhealthy amount” of time. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being proud of what the church has accomplished in the past. It can be helpful at times. If a church lives in the past, consistently looking back to past pastors, programs, and practices, it won’t be long until the phrase, “Our best years are behind us” is uttered.

10. Staying Churches tend to push back against cooperating with other churches when it comes to kingdom work. I want to be careful here. Not all staying churches push back against working with other churches. For whatever reason, many churches- including Southern Baptist churches who tout cooperation as a defining denominational characteristic – are not always ready to cooperate. Perhaps there is a deep-seeded feeling of competition. Perhaps there is a sense of guilt or embarrassment that other churches are doing more. Perhaps it is a fear of other churches stealing members. Perhaps it is easier not to work together. Perhaps it is a lack of understanding of that we are involved in kingdom work and we desperately need each other. I don’t know. Staying churches are content to the pull the entire weight of the Great Commission on their own, and the results are evident.